One Root at a Time

Penn State alumnus leverages the resources of Invent Penn State to turn plant science technology into a thriving startup.

As Penn State alumnus Hunter Swisher explains it, he had one primary goal when he enrolled at the University.

“I wanted to create my own job coming out of college,” the plant sciences graduate said. “My biggest motivation is simply that I wanted to work for myself.”

His idea was to build on a piece of technology that he stumbled across during his undergraduate work and commercialize it.

“That was when I decided to leave the lab and start the path towards entrepreneurship,” Swisher said.

He released his first product line, Rhizosorb — a non-fertilizer product that promotes root growth in turf, which in turn allows owners to use less water, fertilizer and other chemicals.

left: president barron looks on while hunter removes a soil sample from the green. right: a close up of the machine that applies rhizosorb to the green

Left: Hunter Swisher, CEO of Phospholutions, demonstrates for President Eric Barron how Rhizosorb causes plant roots to grow longer. Right: Rhizosorb is applied to the fifth-hole green on the Penn State White Course. Images: David Schroeder

But Swisher faced major hurdles in starting his own company and getting Rhizosorb to market.

“I needed to learn how to run a business,” the State College native recalled. “I came from a very high technical background in the science field. I needed to learn everything from financing a startup to how to do the customer discovery process, then relating and pitching to investors. All of that was stuff I had no experience with.”

At the same time, Penn State President Eric Barron launched Invent Penn State, a University effort to promote entrepreneurship within its campuses and surrounding communities.

Invent Penn State was just starting. What Invent Penn State had done was provide all of those resources to de-risk the venture for me and allow me to pursue this,” Swisher said.

As a student, Swisher participated in the Penn State Summer Founders Program, the Ben Franklin TechCelerator and the Happy Valley Launchbox accelerator. He also worked with the Small Business Development Center and Penn State Law's Entrepreneurship and Intellectual Property clinics. Swisher’s business concept won numerous pitch competitions and garnered support from a local investor.

But even with financing and support, Swisher’s new company — Phospholutions — still had to overcome a key hurdle: testing.

“I leveraged the Penn State network to get all of the in-field research done for basically everything from our marketing materials to proving our product worked.”

He decided to turn to the University’s alumni network for help. “So I approached Rick Pagett, who is a Penn State alumnus and superintendent of the Penn State Golf Courses. I said, ‘Hey, I have an idea, can we run some trials?’ We got phenomenal results. After just one application, we showed that we can double the root depth on golf courses in less than two months. In turn, that created a savings in water, fertilizer and other chemicals.”

Swisher continued, “We wanted to replicate those results. So we reached out to 15 superintendents who were all Penn State alumni across the East Coast. We did trials with them. They were all willing. I leveraged the Penn State network to get all of the in-field research done for basically everything from our marketing materials to proving our product worked.”

A group looks on while a white substance is applied to a golf green

Rhizosorb is applied to the fifth-hole green on the Penn State White Course. Image: David Schroeder

But Swisher sees the impact of Phospholutions going far beyond golf courses. He envisions his product playing a key role in helping to clean up watersheds such as the Chesapeake Bay.

“We started in turf because there is a lot of value added to golf courses by applying our product. We get a lot of cost savings. But really where our company is going is remediation. We can go into areas like the Chesapeake where all of these estuaries lead into the bay and we can basically remove the fertilizer that’s been dissolved in the water. We can remove it with our product and reapply it upstream in the agricultural fields as a controlled-release fertilizer. The fertilizer that is reapplied to the field will never re-enter the waterway, so we’ve closed this loop.”

He added that the Phospholution’s product has already been certified organic for the state of Pennsylvania and the company is pursing national certification.

Looking back on his Penn State undergraduate career and the development of his own startup, Swisher said, “This is exactly what I wanted to do. I only applied to Penn State. I didn’t apply to another university. I knew where I fit in. I knew where I had to be.”